Featured image: Bob Sakata, wife Joanna, and Robert (R.T.) Sakata
This week we’re fortunate to have our friend Robert Sakata, owner of Sakata Farms in Brighton, CO, sharing some of his thoughts on the year just past and the new year ahead with OnionBusiness. His answers are both reflective and optimistic.
With decades of farming and ag service to his credit, and with the tutelage of his parents, Bob and Joanna, as well, Robert – or “R.T.” to many – is well-versed in the life of a Colorado farmer. Both Sakata Farms, started after the end of World War II in 1945, and its founder, Bob, are iconic, and throughout his long career, the now “retired” Bob contributed to the ag community by serving on multiple boards and commissions while building a successful multi-crop grower/shipper enterprise. (He also continues to go into the office frequently.)
R.T.’s own path has involved public service as well. For well over a decade, he served on the Colorado Water Quality Control Commission; he is president of Fulton Ditch board of directors; he serves on the New Brantner Ditch board; he is the ag rep on the Metro Roundtable; he is a member of the Colorado Ag Water Alliance; and he is a founding member and longstanding president of the Colorado Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.
And R.T. continues to drive tractor and tend fields. Over the past several years Sakata Farms adjusted its operations to concentrate on onions, and today it grows the single crop on several hundred acres around Brighton for a local/regional customer base mostly along the Front Range area.
Like virtually every other business in the United States, the Brighton company has felt the effects of COVID-19 and other 2020-spawned issues, and we asked R.T. to comment on some of them and look at the year ahead.
With his characteristic upbeat attitude, R.T., “We are going to keep our onion acreage the same which after going through 2020 is a positive.
We asked if he anticipates an uptick in foodservice demand and what he’s seeing in the way of indoor dining and take-out in his region, and R.T. said he is hoping the industry experiences gains. “But unfortunately, I think some of the small, privately-owned restaurants may not be able to re-open due to the losses they had from COVID,” he said. “As you know, here in Colorado outdoor dining is not usually too feasible. But I do see take-out increasing.”
R.T. continued, “I spoke to the owner of one of my favorite Chinese restaurants, and he said that he is not even going to try and open indoor dining until all restrictions are removed because his net returns are actually better with takeout rather than indoor. He is fortunate because people are familiar with Chinese takeout vs other types of foods. I know a family-owned Italian restaurant that had to totally modify their menu for takeout because many items just didn’t work when people took them home.”
Robert also said, “I don’t drink much, but when I visit with other people, I am surprised how many people are also taking out mixed drinks. I think this has really helped some of the restaurants, and it will be interesting if they discontinue this option once the pandemic is over.”
Looking at the retail sector, R.T. said it was a good sign that last spring’s recall on red onions in California was short-lived. He said it’s important for the industry to remain diligent to avoid food safety recalls with any fresh fruit or vegetable, and he added, “With regards to the marketing side, I think people have been doing home cooking more than ever, and so it’s important to update some of the resources about how to use onions, even simple things like how to prepare and cut and store an onion.”
We asked about competition within the industry and if he sees orderly marketing linking up for 2021. He exclaimed, “’Orderly marketing?!?’ I don’t know what that is!” And he followed up by saying, “I think everybody is struggling with that question, not just for the onion industry but for all commerce. Last year and the pandemic have really pointed out some things that we all took for granted: I would have never imagined me standing in line at the grocery store hoping I could buy toilet paper for our staff!!”
Robert went on to say, “I have always tried to carry the banner that diversity of production is a strength, and yet our system often pushes all industries towards consolidation. I hope that our food supply system will continue to support local and promote diversity of production.”
The past year was not without its silver lining, however, and R.T. was grateful to share some thoughts. He said, “I would like to mention how appreciative I am for our great staff. The pandemic presented all of us a lot of challenges, and our staff was great in adopting the new procedures we put in place due to COVID. For example, we canceled our normal end of year party, and I know some of our employees put off traveling which I know has to be hard for them.
And, he concluded, “I think the pandemic has actually brought our family closer together – even if it was just through Zoom!”